By John David Dyche
Matt Wallace and his team saved and strengthened Shakespeare this year. In so doing, they gave a birthday present to the Bard, who turned 450 years old this April, and a gift of great value to Louisville and all Kentucky.
Kentucky Shakespeare is the oldest free Shakespeare festival in the United States. Founded by C. Douglas Ramey and performed in an amphitheater named for him in Old Louisville’s beautiful Central Park, the festival has been a true community treasure for 54 years.
Last year at this time, however, it was in real danger. Its then-CEO and producing artistic director resigned after his wife obtained an emergency protective order against him. Because she was starring in “Twelfth Night,” that summer’s only production, the show suddenly shut down.
(Adding insult to this gross injury, the former director who did such damage now apparently disputes his resignation, claims he was actually terminated, and seeks a bonus of $100,000, plus interest. “Lord, what fools these mortals be!”)
Kentucky Shakespeare’s Board of Directors then made the extremely wise decision to hire Matt Wallace as producing artistic director. What a difference good leadership can make!
With help from some generous benefactors and corporate sponsors, Wallace has wrought nothing short of a revolution at Kentucky Shakespeare. Central Park has been the arts place to be this summer.
Among many other accomplishments on his impressive resume’, Wallace has acted with the company (and met his wife during a production of “A Midsummer Night’s Dream” and proposed on the Ramey Amphitheater stage) and served as artistic director for the acclaimed program Shakespeare Behind Bars.
A wide-ranging interview with Wallace in the program (from which this column draws liberally and without repeated attribution) reveals the scope of his accomplishments. But the best proof of his success has been on the stage and in the rapt, responsive, and record-breaking attendance of more than 21,000 thus far.
Some of the festival’s improvements were in the physical set-up, like fantastic new microphones and a beautiful new stage. But changes in attitude and enthusiasm may have been even more important.
Wallace’s passion for producing high-quality, yet accessible Shakespeare is palpable. The Bowling Green native’s addresses to the audience at intermissions are in their own way almost as entertaining as the plays themselves.
He restored the traditions of putting on three shows – a comedy, a history, and a tragedy – and staging them all on one night at season’s end (although storms befitting “Hamlet”intruded on Saturday’s “Bard-A-Thon” finale). Wallace says the festival did more this year – a lot more – for less money than in years past, and this after dealing with financial problems left by the previous administration.
Kentucky Shakespeare is working with other local theater groups – Le Petomane Theatre Ensemble, Savage Rose Theatre Company, Walden Theatre and ShoeString Productions – to stage an almost unbelievable eight plays this season. And it continues its mission as the largest touring arts education program in Kentucky, serving about 50,000 students in all 120 counties, Wallace notes.
The splendid pre-show entertainment has included groups like the Governor’s School for the Arts, Down’s Syndrome of Louisville, and the festival’s own Camp Shakespeare for aspiring young actors. Food trucks, a liquor license, and a lot of mild summer weather have also enhanced the experience.
But with Shakespeare, of course, “the play’s the thing.” The 2014 trio was simply fantastic.
As director Wallace observed, the Central Park setting is perfect for “A Midsummer Night’s Dream.” It is tempting to say that Gregory Maupin stole the show in the role of Bottom, but his magnificence blended well with, and did not in any way overshadow, the comic excellence of the entire ensemble.
Next came “Henry V,” directed by Amy Attaway and featuring a lively Matt Lytle in the title role. Attaway notes that this history contains “some of the most beautiful and evocative lines in the whole canon, maybe in all of English literature.” There were some fine battle scenes of the sort that captivate the kids, too.
“Hamlet,” Shakespeare’s most famous play, and its titular Danish prince whom critic Harold Bloom called “the most intelligent character in all of literature,” was a crowning conclusion to the triumvirate. Jon Patrick O’Brien was magnificent in the lead, but the entire cast was again outstanding.
The incomparable Shakespeare is absolutely central, if not essential, to Western civilization and culture. This column sometimes despairs of contemporary society, but seeing so many people flock to such fine productions has somewhat restored faith, hope, and soul.
So to the actors, the audiences, the board of directors, the contributors, Wallace, the designers of the sets, costumes, lighting, and sound, and all others who helped do these heroic deeds, “I can no other answer make but thanks, and thanks.”